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Amexica is the harrowing story of the extraordinary terror unfolding along the U.S.-Mexico border—“a country in its own right, which belongs to both the United States and Mexico, yet neither”—as the narco-war escalates to a fever pitch there.
In 2009, after reporting from the border for many years, Ed Vulliamy traveled the frontier from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico, from Tijuana to Matamoros, a journey through a kaleidoscopic ...
Amexica is the harrowing story of the extraordinary terror unfolding along the U.S.-Mexico border—“a country in its own right, which belongs to both the United States and Mexico, yet neither”—as the narco-war escalates to a fever pitch there.
In 2009, after reporting from the border for many years, Ed Vulliamy traveled the frontier from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico, from Tijuana to Matamoros, a journey through a kaleidoscopic landscape of corruption and all-out civil war, but also of beauty and joy and resilience. He describes in revelatory detail how the narco gangs work; the smuggling of people, weapons, and drugs back and forth across the border; middle-class flight from Mexico and an American celebrity culture that is feeding the violence; the interrelated economies of drugs and the maquiladora factories; the ruthless, systematic murder of young women in Ciudad Juarez. Heroes, villains, and victims—the brave and rogue police, priests, women, and journalists fighting the violence; the gangs and their freelance killers; the dead and the devastated—all come to life in this singular book.
Amexica takes us far beyond today’s headlines. It is a street-level portrait, by turns horrific and sublime, of a place and people in a time of war as much as of the war itself.
“Extraordinary.” —Vanity Fair
“An engrossing travelogue . . . a vivid, disturbing dispatch from a very wild frontier.” —Publishers Weekly
“Vulliamy paints a terrifying and authoritative portrait of violence.” —David Reiff, The Wall Street Journal
“An absorbing odyssey . . . Vulliamy’s reporting is faultlessly brave. . . . The scenery and characters he meets are brought alive with vividness and intensity.” —Alex Spillius, The Telegraph (UK)
“The author writes lyrically, with the enticing rhythm of his sentences contrasting jarringly with the degradation of humanity found on nearly every page . . . Most of the narrative feels fresh because it is based so heavily on Vulliamy’s own wanderings . . . An impressively rendered, nightmare-inducing account.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Previously, to understand the ruthlessness, ambition and impact of today’s global criminals, you needed to read Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah and Misha Glenny’s McMafia. Now, you also need to read Vulliamy’s Amexica.” —Brian Schofield, The Times (UK)
A gutsy international journalist narrates life and death along the U.S.-Mexican border.
Former Guardian reporter Vulliamy (Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia's War, 1994) divides his time between Arizona andLondon. While writing about America for British readers, the author became fascinated with the mingling of national cultures along the 2,100 mile–long and 50 mile–wide swath he terms "Amexica." He insists that it is not merely a clever word creation but a historically valid term whose meaning reaches back to Aztec cultures. Because of illegal narcotics moving from Mexico into the United States and more-or-less legal guns for the narcotraficantesmoving the other direction, Amexica is a constant battlefield marked by thousands of murders, rapes and business-related shakedowns. However, as Vulliamy documents through hundreds of individuals featured in the book, the battlefield is also teeming with everyday life. The mixture meansa minorityof residents in Amexica suffer fear and joy simultaneously, with the joy deriving from high income. The majority of residents, however, subsist amid grinding poverty. Those who can find regular employment tend to labor in sweatshops along the border run by exploitative multinational corporations that have transferred many of the jobs from the continental United States, devastating cities north of the border. The author writes lyrically, with the enticing rhythm of his sentences contrasting jarringly with the degradation of humanity found on nearly every page, and Vulliamy generously credits authors who have documented the border in previous books in both English and Spanish. Some sections of the book may be familiar—especially the hundreds of murders of poverty-stricken single women around CiudadJuárez, their bodies left to rot in the desert while law-enforcement agencies express bafflement—but most of the narrative feels fresh because it is based so heavily on Vulliamy's own wanderings.
An impressively rendered, nightmare-inducing account.
My friend Jorge Fregoso and I were drinking a beer at a bar in a labyrinth of quiet alleyways away from central Tijuana one Saturday afternoon in September 2008 when the latest shooting started. It targeted an art deco mansion in the upscale Misión del Pedregal suburb. Federal army trucks arrived to its left, state police shock troops to the right. Few shots were fired from inside the building, it seemed, but a deafening fusillade of fire was aimed at the villa. Only the next day was it revealed to have procured, for the authorities, Eduardo Arellano Félix—“the Doctor”—chief of the clan trying to defend the plaza of drug traffic between Tijuana and California for his Arellano brothers’ syndicate from the raiding Sinaloa cartel. Misión de Pedregal is clearly marked, on a sign adjacent to Arellano’s house, as a “Vecinos Vigilando,” neighborhood watch zone. Yet, says a woman cleaning her porch opposite Arellano’s, “I didn’t think there was anyone living in that house.” What followed the announcement were seventy-two hours of carnage, extreme even by Tijuana standards, which took the year’s death toll for the city to 462 and caused even the local El Sol de Tijuana newspaper, accustomed to such things, to run the headline BAÑO DE SAN GRE, bloodbath.
Fregoso, a reporter for the local Síntesis TV news channel, and I receive our first alert shortly after 3:00 p.m. on Monday, when we are called to Colonia Libertad, where a corpse lies slumped in the dirt beneath steps made of tires. A crowd of young people arrives to observe the busy forensic aftermath in a disconcertingly knowing silence, punctuated by the odd giggly joke or mobile phone call, while some thirty yards away is the border with the United States, the old fence made of metal landing sheets used by the U.S. Air Force from Vietnam to Iraq.
Three young women from the forensic team (wearing identical gray shirts, black jeans, and ponytails) take careful photographs and notes, but like the accompanying trucks full of balaclava-covered federal police, they are soon ordered to speed off to a different location, Mariano Matamoros, and a major artery on the city’s outskirts where another corpse lies, visible by the green light of a PEMEX gas station. The windshield of the victim’s Ford Explorer (with California plates) is pitted with three bullet holes, and he seems to have made a run into the street, followed by twenty-five more shots, each shell casing marked by a blue number on a yellow card. Before the forensic women have even finished here, we are summoned across dirt tracks—zigzagging between cement buildings—to a crossing of backstreets in the Casablanca district, and a lifeless body beside the doorway of a corner shop painted with yellow flowers. When the ninja-clad cops pull back the sheet, we see a teenager shot at point-blank range in the face, blood oozing onto the flagstones, and a girl watching turns away to weep into her mobile phone. But now the night really begins.
Fregoso, with his access to police communications, receives the news so fast that we barrel our orange Volkswagen between the fourth and fifth jeeps of a machine-gun-toting police convoy (to the hooting fury of jeep number five) heading for the next slaughter. The cordon of plastic tape reading PRECAUCIÓN is not even in place yet outside the 9/4 minimart in Villa Floresta, in theory selling “Vinos y Licores,” where a blanket covers the remains of the security guard, with two more dead inside. There is wild wailing from the womenfolk as this body outside is revealed. His flesh has been grated into something like raw kebab meat by fire at point-blank range from a Kalashnikov, or cuerno de chivo, goat’s horn, as an AK-47 is known around here. More screams follow the sight of those killed inside the store, brought out on stretchers and loaded into the white DFI forensic department truck now carrying five former people. The shop, says the susurro, the rustling whisper through the crowd, was a stash for drugs being loaded for export aboard two cars, presumably intended to join the sixty-five thousand that cross from Tijuana into San Diego every day, but that the police now tow away. Meanwhile, heavyset men in sharp suits arrive to look from a slight distance, embracing each other in a way that suggests burdensome comradeship and solace, but little sadness. Any attempt to speak to them is rebuffed with menacing silence and a glare. One of them goes over to console a young woman clutching a baby, in paroxysms of grief, beneath a mural advertising Viper auto alarms.
Yonkes—repair yards for fixing up cars with secondhand parts—are a hallmark of Tijuana’s byways, and next morning another group of sicarios—or maybe the same squad—returns to Villa Floresta in brazen, broad noonday light, past the murals of a girl in a bikini sprawled over an SUV and into gate number one of Yonke Cristal, killing one man whose body, wearing a red shirt, is visible through the bars of a red gate. Two other corpses are hidden behind a white van, the skeletal metal frames of the vehicles all around, detached wheel hubs like prying eyes, and JESUCRISTO EXCELSIOR carved into the hillside above. This is now Tuesday, and on Wednesday morning Tijuana awakes to the news that while the city slept, three bodies were found in an abandoned van and one in a car. The van has been dumped in a quarter called Los Álamos, at a meeting point between ramshackle hillside colonias, a smart gated community, and an electronics factory, and the dead men have been tortured, mutilated, and strangled—one of them handcuffed. People killed and dumped in vehicles are known in this war as encajuelados, literally entrunked. The body in the car is that of a police officer called Mauricio Antonio Hernando Flores. It is his personal car, and the officer had parked beneath a great statue of an open-armed figure of Christ, presiding over Tijuana in imitation of Rio de Janeiro, with its engine running, just past 1:00 a.m., apparently awaiting someone. Whoever shot him, leaving his body to be discovered slumped in the blood-soaked driver’s seat, knew him and was apparently expected at the scene.
There are two kinds of cop killings in the narco war. One was illustrated in January 2008 when the narcos crossed some line in the etiquette of drug warfare. The sicarios’ car pulled off a main road onto the dirt track into the wretched Colonia Loma Bonita. They would have parked next to the “Swap Meet” hangar and walked to what is now a vacant lot for sale, marked by a white wooden cross, where Officer Margarito Zaldano lived. They entered the house and executed not only Zaldano but also his wife, Sandra, and twelve-year-old daughter, Valeria. Zaldano’s crime? Being a cop and doing his job trying to arrest criminals who were protected by his own police force.
The other kind of slaying of police officers—la chota, as it is known on the border, the fuzz—involves those who become embroiled with the narcos, working for them or adding to the income of their day job by moonlighting for the cartels, often with the same uniforms and weapons. These officers get caught out if they charge too much for their services, oversights, or information; renege on a deal; or if their work for one cartel becomes irksome to another. Mexicans joke that a police officer is offered a simple career choice: plata o plomo, silver or lead, and many, while they can get it, inevitably opt for the former. After the killing of Officer Flores, the authorities, in contrast to their outpouring of tribute to Zaldano back in January, refused to fuss much over this latest execution of one of their colleagues by a single tiro de gracia, a mercy shot to the head. In Tijuana, as elsewhere, the municipal police can be working for one cartel, the state police with another, and the Federales with yet another. None of this happens in a vacuum.
Like every war, this carnage has a history, and we need to understand the history of the narco cartels’ business lest the war appear to be the senseless bloodletting it is not. Or, at least, was not at first. Indeed, one needs to know one’s Mafia history as much as that of any major player in the global economy and polity, because the syndicates are more powerful, more astute, and handle higher turnovers than most multinational corporations, as well as fuel our society with their products. The drug cartels were prototypes and pioneers of globalization; the Neapolitan Camorra was the first multinational into postcommunist Eastern Europe, harvesting Kalashnikovs produced under Soviet license. The Camorra was also among the first capitalist enterprises to penetrate Communist China, dealing in textiles and drugs coming into the port of Naples. Now that the “legal” global economy is in crisis, narco cartels respond to their own crisis within that economy in their own—but by no means separate—way.
Unlike their Italian counterparts, the Mexican cartels cannot trace their origins to the eighteenth century, but they were dealing drugs before the Italians. The smuggling syndicate based in Ciudad Juárez was not only the first narco syndicate run by a woman, Ignacia “la Nacha” Jasso, but also was among the first to trade in heroin to the United States, after the market for supplying America with alcohol, during Prohibition, came to an end in 1933. The Mexican heroin-growing and opium market in Sinaloa gained impetus during World War II, when the United States signed an agreement to buy opium to meet its wartime medical needs.1 The Mexican narco smugglers did start dealing in drugs on a major scale at the same time as the Italians, toward the end of the 1960s, when it became clear that demand from the United States and Europe was insatiable. “The narco economy,” wrote Guillermo Ibarra, an economist at Sinaloa State University, “and family remittances from the United States actually keep our state on its feet.”2
At first, Mexico’s role was that of producer, of Mexican Mud heroin, poppies for which were ideally suited to the climate of the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa, home of the “classic” narco cartels—then and now. Two initiatives by the U.S. government during the 1970s and ’80s changed this, and in part laid the foundations for the modern cartels. First, during the 1970s, the United States steered the Mexican government through Operation Condor, which succeeded in all but destroying indigenous Mexican heroin production, incinerating and defoliating the Sinaloan poppy crops in dichotomous partnership with the same Mexican political apparatus that had ruled in close coexistence with—protected by and protecting—the gomeros, or heroin barons, so called because of the gummy texture of their merchandise.
Second, Washington embarked on its covert backing of right-wing contra rebels against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.3 The contras would be armed with weapons secretly transported from the United States, with the criminal underworld as supplier and mediator, to Central America. But the arms had to be paid for in “currency” that would not call attention to itself, and they were: in cocaine from Colombia. Luckily for all involved, narcotic science and narcotic fashion both coincided with Washington’s interests, as well as those of the cartels in Colombia and Mexico. Just as the United States needed Colombia’s natural currency to procure and pay for arms to the contras, cocaine was becoming the drug of choice: in powdered form for American entertainment and other smart circles, and in its chemical derivative form, crack, on the street and in the ghetto. According to a fictionalized account in The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow, the Mexicans became the courier service for arms in one direction and cocaine in the other—a service that became known as the Mexican Trampoline. Mexico’s cartels combined three things to act as conduit in flooding America with crack and cocaine: their knowledge of smuggling routes as old as the border itself, the unofficial acquiescence of the Reagan administration, and their conviviality with Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled since 1917. In so doing, they realized, as Winslow put it, “that their real product isn’t drugs, it’s the two-thousand-mile border they share with the United States…Land can be burned, crops can be poisoned, people can be displaced, but that border…isn’t going anywhere.”4
As masters of the border, Mexican narcos were in a position to assume control of the hemisphere. Cocaine supply routes through the Caribbean and Miami were strangled by U.S. authorities still earnest about fighting a “war on drugs.” That only increased the flow through Mexico, which it was impossible to throttle. The Mexican traffickers demanded that their Colombian suppliers pay not in cash for the necessary transportation but in kind, and the percentage of cocaine payable as commission for the delivery service increased, and increased. Colombians trying to penetrate the Mexican groups themselves were promptly killed. So now, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 90 percent of all drugs entering the United States do so as part of Mexican cartel business. The major imports are still cocaine and marijuana, though recent Mexican mass production of methamphetamine accounts for most consumption of the drug in the United States, as it does across Latin America. The bust of a methamphetamine factory in Argentina in September 2008 involved predominantly Mexican nationals. Drug enforcement agencies also blame Mexican cartels for the sudden spike in heroin availability and the precipitous fall in street prices, from $5,000 per ounce in 2004 to $1,000 per ounce in 2008.
But when we talk about “the Mexicans” we talk not about a homogenous organization; quite the reverse. We talk about cartels operating, during this period, under license from the authorities. Franchised by Mexi can municipal, state, and federal government officials and police forces, the system was based, through an organized network of corruption until the fall of the PRI in 2000, on what is called the plaza—a place of gathering, whether a square in the center of a town or the plaza de toros (a bullring) or the jurisdiction of a police or military force. Apart, crucially, from its eastern stretch toward the Gulf, the border was strategically carved into drug-smuggling plazas, each considered the territory of a subdivision of the original Sinaloan Mafia, which paid the authorities for protection and cooperation—with percentages shaved off at every level, to the top—on its turf. In return, the Mafia fingered freelance or rival operators so that the authorities could give the impression of an authentic enforcement operation.5
Even if it sometimes feels a bit like trainspotting, we need to be familiar with the names and heritage of the major trafficking organizations that operate the trade worth an estimated $323 billion a year6—pushing drugs into the veins of the wretched, up the noses of the rich, and frying the brains of the young. People refer to the Mafia as though it were some amorphous alien force or, worse, a romantic brotherhood operating according to some code of honor laid down by Godfather Corleone, a Marlon Brando don. We are all familiar with the Sicilian Mafia (Cosa Nostra) because of its history and mythic presence in mass culture. In Mexico, the dramatis personae of the mafia is more complicated, and we need to know the cast.
The pioneer of Mexico’s narco-trafficking mafia was Pedro Avilés Pérez, from Sinaloa, who escalated the smuggling of marijuana and heroin into the United States during the late 1960s. But the original Mexican Godfather was Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a protégé of Avilés’s who took over his operation after Avilés was killed in a shoot-out with the police in 1978. Félix Gallardo founded the Guadalajara cartel and became perhaps the biggest narco trafficker in the world during his zenith. In 1985, however, a calamity changed the cartel, the Mexican government’s conviviality with it, and U.S. complicity with that relationship. An undercover DEA agent, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, was fingered, kidnapped, and tortured to death in Guadalajara. (There is evidence that the CIA knew and may even have trained the people who did it, to a point that relations between the two agencies have never fully recovered.)
The truth behind Camarena’s death has eluded all attempts at excavation, but whatever that truth, Washington demanded that Mexico do something—and that something was to arrest Félix Gallardo. In 1989, Gallardo was convicted of ordering Camarena’s abduction and murder, but from jail he sought to keep his organization together, allocating the various clans their plazas in which to operate. There was even a council, held in an expensive Acapulco hotel, to which the jailed Gallardo sent messengers to clarify the plazas, exhort the cartels to cooperate against their common enemy, U.S. law enforcement, and offer advice on how to negotiate with the Mexican authorities and impose discipline.7
Gallardo’s vision was one that in Italy is called a Pax Mafiosa, whereby criminal syndicates know their place with reference to each other, law enforcement knows its place in the same scheme of things, the product keeps flowing, and politicians understand that this kind of quiet comes at a price—protection. A Pax Mafiosa can guarantee the politician votes, and a power base, in return for nothing more than the tranquillity of a blind eye at least, or cover for, even adherence to, a particular cartel. But this is not how the criminal mind works. If the cartels are greedy, why should they not become even greedier? If their modus operandi is to break laws, why would their modus vivendi be to keep them? When things become bloody in the world of narco trafficking, and the peace is blown apart, this means power is shifting, disintegrating, or resisting disintegration and being claimed across the ordained plazas. When Cosa Nostra famously blew up the anti-Mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992, it was taken wrongly to be a sign of the Mafia’s strength. Cosa Nostra was reeling from what the judges had achieved against them, and—crucially—the tables were turning across the plazas of Italy. Cosa Nostra was being overtaken by new—leaner and meaner—operators: the Camorra of Naples and ’Ndrangheta of Calabria. The old guard was in trouble, the plaza unquiet. Nor, in Mexico, could such a momentous event as Gallardo’s arrest occur without leaving a vacuum, any more than any of his lieutenants could resist trying to fill it. The Guadalajara cartel split, different branches claiming its mantle: one, led by Gallardo’s nephews and nieces, established the Tijuana cartel, while another, led by Avilés’s nephew Joaquín Guzmán Loera, founded the Sinaloa cartel, and a third formed the Juárez cartel.
But the shattering of the Pax Mafiosa did not result in a reduction in the flow of drugs. Control of the flow, of the plazas, was simply up for grabs. And now, in Mexico, unfettered greed and an enormous surplus have created a new plaza on home turf, contaminating Mexico itself. And so a draft map of the present war came to be drawn.
The most famous plaza, that between Tijuana and California, was featured in Steven Soderbergh’s film Traffic. It was run by the Tijuana cartel, or the Arellano Félix Organization, the AFO, but is now contested. The Tijuana cartel is the only one to claim a direct (but disputed) family connection to Gallardo: Gallardo had five nephews, the Arellano Félix brothers, of whom Eduardo, arrested that Saturday in Misión del Pedregal, was the last to remain at large. El Chapo Guzmán’s first round of offensives on the border followed the borderline itself, west to east, starting in the early 1990s in Tijuana, soon after Gallardo’s arrest, when Guzmán claimed the padrino’s (godfather’s) mantle and the heritage of his own uncle, Pedro Avilés Pérez. In those days, the AFO kept Guzmán at bay: the early 1990s were the days of the “Narco Juniors” in Tijuana, who flaunted a style that the recent violence has only recently forced out. The brothers and their entourage would cruise the city and its nightlife, dressing outrageously on their motorcycles or in SUV trocas. In many ways, they invented a narco style of yuppie razzmatazz. The AFO perpetrated the highest hit against the Catholic church by any crime syndicate when its hit men killed Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, on May 24, 1993, at the Guadalajara airport.
The AFO can be said to be prime movers in changing the rules of engagement to include women and children as well as clerics—something the old-guard narcos prided themselves on avoiding. In August 2008, Jesús Rubén Moncada—aka “el Güero Loco,” the Crazy Blond—was arrested in Los Angeles for a famous massacre in 1998 of nineteen people, including a baby clutched in its mother’s arms, on a villa veranda near Ensenada, down the coast south of Tijuana. He had been living illegally in LA for ten years.8 In 2002, the cartel’s leader, Ramón Arellano Félix, was shot and killed by federal police. And in the latest round of violence since 2006, the AFO has been subjected to a battering by Guzmán’s cartel, which abated only recently when his man in Tijuana, Eduardo García Simental, known as “el Teo,” was arrested in January 2010. The arrest that Saturday afternoon in 2008 of Eduardo Arellano Félix leaves his sister Enedina as commander of the Tijuana clan (a first for a woman since “la Nacha” Jasso in Ciudad Juárez), while Eduardo’s nephew Fernando Sánchez Arellano, “the Engineer,” runs the AFO’s street operation. Enedina is an important figure. Now that more and more women are entering the business, drug trafficking is seen as a more dignified profession than prostitution. Women serve as smugglers, with a better chance of passing border controls and checkpoints than men. There have been some major arrests of women, and the body of María José González, a singer and winner of the Sun Festival beauty pageant, was found by a road in Culiacán in spring 2009 near that of her drug-trafficking husband and a sign reading DON’T THROW TRASH. The authorities believe she had become involved with the Sinaloa cartel—one of the many beauty queens to become cartel mascots, then victims of the cartel’s rivals.9
A stretch of land between Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez is variously controlled by an organization that switches allegiance to bigger cartels in order to operate. It was once run by the brothers Arturo and Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, who come from the same range of mountains as Joaquín Guzmán, near the town of Guamúchil, in Sinaloa. For years, the Beltrán Leyva brothers operated their stretch of frontier on behalf of the Sinaloa cartel, to which they were allied. They acted also as a security wing for Guzmán, overseeing squads of sicarios and protecting Guzmán’s lieutenants and their families. But two things happened in rapid succession: in December 2007, while Guzmán’s cartel was fighting the Gulf cartel and its military wing, Los Zetas, leaders from the Beltrán Leyva cartel held a treacherous meeting with Los Zetas in Veracruz, purportedly to discuss opening a space for the brothers in central Mexico, independent of Guzmán. The meeting fitted into a series Los Zetas were said to be holding, offering their services as hit men for a “supercartel” comprising anyone prepared to challenge Guzmán.10 In January 2008, a month after the meeting, the elder brother, Alfredo, was arrested, and suddenly there was a turning point in the war. Guzmán is said to have commented that Beltrán Leyva’s meeting with Los Zetas necessitated his having to “cut off that arm of the organization.” The Beltrán Leyva clan deserted Guzmán, convinced that he had delivered Alfredo to the authorities in order to court, or even secure, their favor. The younger Arturo Beltrán Leyva, “el Alfa,” exacted revenge on senior public officials, including the federal police commissioner, and on Guzmán’s son Edgar Guzmán López, whom his sicarios gunned down in a shopping mall in May 2008. As head of security for Guzmán, Arturo had the home addresses of the families of his senior affiliates, and the violence unleashed by Beltrán Leyva against his former protector’s entourage accounts for some of the worst recent killing in Sinaloa.
Over Christmas and New Year 2009–10, a government offensive against the Beltrán Leyva cartel reached high drama. On December 16, a unit of Naval Special Forces, backed by helicopter cover, stormed Arturo’s dwelling complex in Cuernavaca and shot and killed him—the highest narco drug lord to be assassinated by the military since President Calderón’s offensive and the first since Ramón Arellano Félix in 2002. Beltrán Leyva’s bloodied corpse was subjected by his military assassins to an official rite associated with the narcos themselves. Photographs showed his jeans pulled down to his knees and his torso adorned with rows of bloodied $100 bills, and in another shot with spiritual accoutrements. This display angered commentators, such as Jorge Chabat of El Universal, who called the rite “the typical modus operandi of narco-traffickers,”11 but that paper, like others, eagerly published the images.12
During the December 16 raid, an ensign from the commando unit, Melquisedet Angulo Cordóva, age thirty, had been killed as Beltrán Leyva’s bodyguards exchanged fire. He was buried with full military honors, and the response of Beltrán Leyva’s supporters was immediate. The day after the commando’s hometown funeral in the state of Tabasco, gunmen burst into his grieving family’s home, killing his mother, sister, brother, and an aunt.13 By targeting the immediate family of military personnel serving in the war against them, the narcos had escalated the stakes in Mexico’s war by another notch, but the authorities’ response was equally swift. With both senior Beltrán Leyva brothers removed, leadership of the cartel fell to the younger Héctor Beltrán Leyva. He remains at large, but on January 2, 2010, another brother, Carlos, was taken by a bloodless swoop in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán. The government could not have made itself clearer: the war was being cranked up still further. But who stood to gain? The president, of course; but also, according to the susurro, the Sinaloa cartel, which had everything to gain from the government’s war against its rivals, as the government well knows.
Ciudad Juárez was always the core of Amexica, formerly “El Paso del Norte”—Portal to the North—a trading route long before the border and a smuggling route as old as the line itself. “La Nacha” Jasso was the unchallenged heroin and then marijuana queen of Juárez from the legalization of alcohol until the 1970s. But the modern Juárez cartel was forged by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who emerged as a force after he attached himself to the most powerful drug lord of the central border area, Pablo Acosta Villarreal, during the 1980s. Acosta operated out of the isolated town of Ojinaga, opposite Presidio in Texas, and in an unparalleled series of interviews with the writer Terence Popper, he detailed how his syndicate enjoyed the protection of the state and federal police, politicians, and army.14 But, spotting his chance, Carrillo arranged for his mentor to be killed by federal officers during a raid on his home village of Santa Elena in 1987, which involved cooperation with forces from the U.S. side. In his excellent account of Carrillo’s building the Juarez cartel, Down by the River, Charles Bowden relates that Carrillo paid a federal commander $1 million to mount the raid and ensure Acosta’s death.15 Carrillo Fuentes then shifted the cartel’s power base to Juárez itself and strengthened it. In the mid-1990s, according to the DEA, the Juárez cartel was the biggest drug trafficker in the world, shifting more than 50 percent of all narcotics consumed in the United States. In 1996, Carrillo died during facial surgery—or did he? Mystery still surrounds his alleged passing, with all four surgeons engaged for the operation subsequently murdered. Violence in Juárez followed his death as Carrillo Fuentes’s heir and brother, Vicente, tried to secure the terrain, but even that bloodbath was moderate compared to the present savagery in the city, which is supposed to have begun when Joaquín Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel laid siege in 2007. Whether the Juárez cartel remains a force in the labyrinth of competing interests that are killing across the city today has yet to be ascertained, but one can only presume that its present incarnation, La Línea, retains potency in the maelstrom, alongside some five hundred street gangs, the Sinaloa cartel, different strata of corrupt police forces, and the armed forces. How fitting, and gruesome, that la línea is also a common term in everyday parlance for the border itself.
As a man who perceives himself as heir to the Avilés/Gallardo empire, and as Avilés’s nephew, Joaquín Guzmán—known as “el Chapo,” or Shorty—saw the plaza of his Sinaloa cartel as a national one, almost a birthright. The moment Gallardo was arrested, Guzmán, who had built solid alliances with cocaine exporters in Colombia, declared war on those whom he disdained as pretenders in Tijuana and, with time, on every other criminal organization in Mexico. Guzmán was captured, however, early into his leadership of the cartel, in 1993. It was from jail, in luxury confinement at El Puente Grande maximum security prison near Guadalajara, that—U.S. intelligence sources believe—Guzmán adapted his tactics to build alliances in public office and high politics. Perhaps because of those contacts, Guzmán escaped spectacularly in 2001, just before he was due to be extradited to the United States, thus becoming poster boy for the latest wave of cult narco folk heroism. “Breakout of the Millennium” was the title of one narcocorrido ballad commemorating the escape. Another, by Los Buitres (the Vultures) and broadcast across radio airwaves, jukeboxes, the Internet and on YouTube goes: “He sleeps at times in houses / At times in tents / Radio and rifle at the foot of the bed / And sometimes his roof is a cave / Guzmán is everywhere.” Guzmán is semiliterate, but he issues communiqués boasting that he pays out $5 million a month to corrupt officials, and he makes sudden, brazen appearances like that in May 2005 at a restaurant in Nuevo Laredo (on Gulf cartel terrain he was contesting at the time), when some forty diners found the doors suddenly locked by his gunmen. The clientele was asked not to use cell phones while Guzmán and his entourage enjoyed their meal and drinks, after which el Chapo pulled out thousands of dollars in cash and paid for everyone in the room.16
From jail, Guzmán had directed successive assaults on the border plazas, which chronologically followed the frontier from west to east. After Tijuana came Juárez, following Carrillo’s death. But it was after Guzmán had escaped that he launched the offensive that detonated this latest phase of the war by unleashing his forces, unsuccessfully, against the Gulf cartel in 2005, in pursuit of the prize: Nuevo Laredo, the busiest commercial border crossing in the world. The offensive in Nuevo Laredo was both an end and a beginning: it was the last of Guzmán’s first round of attacks but also the onset of the current war, taking the violence to another level altogether. Some expert observers believe that Guzmán has become something of a figurehead, a symbolic narco monarch who wields less power than notoriety, and that the cartel is now run by others with lower profiles but greater ruthlessness: Ismael “el Mayo” Zambada—who in 2010 gave a unique interview to El Universal, boasting about the cartel’s prowess. It is often speculated that if it was part of the Mexican government’s strategy to restore a Pax Mafiosa by backing one cartel in its bid for a monopoly, then that cartel would be the Sinaloa. But it is now too late to pursue such a goal, because of the ferocious power wielded by Guzmán’s main rival, the Gulf cartel.
Until 2005, the drama was mainly among and between Sinaloans moving up to the border, which initially excluded the only syndicate to which Gallardo had conceded its own indigenous terrain, the Gulf cartel, based in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, opposite deep south Texas. At the time of this writing, it is too early to discern any specific outcome to the offensive launched by President Calderón in December 2006, but one partial result is clear: the Gulf cartel and what was formed as its military wing, Los Zetas, have held their terrain against both their rivals and the army. While el Chapo Guzmán remains Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, and his cartel appears to remain closest to political power, Los Zetas’ insurgency and resilience make it the Mexican government’s gravest problem, along with the very different nightmare of the anarchy in Ciudad Juárez. For this reason, the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas warrant special attention.
Unlike the other syndicates, with leaderships from Sinaloa, the Gulf cartel grew out of—and is fiercely proud of—its territory and home state, which runs along the border from Nuevo Laredo to the river’s mouth. The cartel was founded by a whiskey bootlegger from the 1930s, Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, when he moved into the marijuana and heroin business during the 1970s. He is said to have had the only rival on his terrain, Casimiro Espinoza, killed. That murder, in 1984, was reportedly organized by Guerra’s nephew Juan García Abrego and marks the birth of the modern Gulf cartel. By moving the cartel into cocaine, García Abrego became the first drug trafficker to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and was duly arrested and extradited to the United States in 1996, leaving the leadership contested but easily won by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Cárdenas, who hailed from a poor ranch on the outskirts of Matamoros, consolidated his power within the cartel by killing his rival, Chava Gómez—earning himself the nickname “el Mata Amigos,” the Friend Killer—and led it from his home city until being arrested during a gun battle in 2003. He was subsequently extradited to the United States in 2007 and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison in February 2010, after a trial held in secret.
Cárdenas, in his way, defines the present narco war: from a very humble background in the police force, he sought not to manipulate high politics but to secure his position within the cartel and against its competitors by recruiting an enforcement wing trained by former members of special service military units, which Cárdenas named Los Zetas, after their leader Arturo Guzmán’s call sign in the police, Z1. Los Zetas emerged to take over the cartel as a syndicate in their own right (a position now facing a challenge from within the cartel). They are one of the most terrifying and formidable drug-trafficking organizations in the world, with a paramilitary army estimated by the DEA to number four thousand highly trained soldiers. Arturo Guzmán and his deputies Rogelio González, “Z2,” and Heriberto Lazcano, “Z3,” enticed former members of Mexico’s special airborne antidrug military unit, the GAFE, to defect and train others. Some of Los Zetas’ troops were reportedly trained by the United States at Fort Benning in Georgia, but this has not been proved. After Z1 Guzmán was killed in 2002 and Z2 Rogelio captured in 2004, Lazcano, a former commando in the GAFE, took on the leadership. The recruiting continues: Los Zetas, calling themselves a grupo operativo, hung a narcomanta from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo in 2008 calling for men with “military experience” to phone a displayed number. “We offer a good salary, food, and medical care for your families,” it taunted. The Gulf cartel and Los Zetas claim as part of their territory the most lucrative smuggling point on the border, a prize coveted by any cartel: the freight road and rail bridges that cross the Rio Grande between Nuevo Laredo and Laredo, Texas. In 2005, the Sinaloa cartel attacked, in pursuit of a share of the contaminated traffic that crosses the frontier every day. The assault was the beginning of the current war, the latest and most vicious phase not just in the long history of narco violence but in Mexico’s history since the revolution of 1910.
Meanwhile, Los Zetas have all but secured their goal of a route down the Gulf Coast and into Central America, affording direct access to the traditional cocaine-producing country of Colombia and to new export markets for the drug opened up by Los Zetas in Peru and Venezuela. The advantages of coastal supremacy were illustrated by a novel haul on June 16, 2009: dozens of mysteriously dead sharks in two containers brought ashore by the marine authorities at the Gulf port of Progreso turned out to have had their bellies stuffed with bags containing almost two thousand pounds of cocaine.17 In order to secure a clear route to the cocaine-producing countries, Los Zetas are combating the Sinaloa cartel in guerrilla warfare in Guatemala. Los Zetas are the cartel with the best connections to markets in Britain and Europe, aligned with their opposite numbers, the ’Ndrangheta of Calabria. When in September 2008 some 175 operatives for the Gulf cartel were arrested by U.S. authorities—to whose intelligence services the cartel is known as “the Company”—ten were in Calabria.18 The alliance is important in light of remarks made by Mexico’s attorney general, Eduardo Medina Mora, in March 2009, that the crackdown against cross-border traffic was forcing Mexican cartels to shift their attention and potentially their operations, and “focus more closely on Europe.”19 The alliance is equally cogent in the wake of recent briefings by the Mexican diplomatic service indicating that a slight decline in cocaine consumption in the United States creates a surplus in Mexico needing to be shipped somewhere else—which may explain why Britian, Spain, and other European countries serviced by the ’Ndrangheta have now overtaken the United States in the per capita consumption of cocaine and its “cooked” derivatives. There have been recent reports of direct contact with drug gangs on Merseyside in Britain.20
An alliance between Los Zetas and ’Ndrangheta is logical also in terms of narco social style, as well as economics. Although the parallels are not exact, some similar progression can be traced in the decline of the classical Sicilian Cosa Nostra as matching that of the Félix Gallardo federation during the 1980s, as both were overtaken by more ferocious syndicates emerging from poorer backgrounds and without pretensions to become “Godfather” figures—epitomized by Los Zetas from Tamaulipas (challenging Sinaloa) and ’Ndrangheta from Calabria (challenging Sicily). In Mexico as in Italy, there is a ubiquitous nostalgia, however misplaced, for “old-time” gangsters with almost aristocratic pretensions for their codes of “honor,” debonair style, and political connections. But they have been superseded, both generationally and in terms of savagery: in the Italian instance by the ’Ndrangheta, and in Mexico by the also leaner and meaner Zetas, who came from a background of rural slums, urban street gangs, and the police or military academies. In both cases, the old fedora or Stetson has been replaced by a shaved buzz cut and tattoos; the appointment with a politician by that with a personal martial arts trainer. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén was an auto mechanic before joining the police, and as a modest dresser is seen as the style guru of this transition to what one could call Generation Z in the genealogy, without end, of drug dealing.
Los Zetas are, moreover, leaving an ever-heavier footprint in the United States. Apart from their deep penetration of the most important border hub city of Houston, Los Zetas have been linked to appalling violence in the Deep South. In August 2008, five men were found with their throats slit in Columbiana, Alabama, after being tortured with electric shocks. The FBI claims the victims owed a debt of $400,000 to the Gulf cartel. During the big raid against the Gulf cartel in September 2008, twelve of its operatives were arrested in Atlanta, where authorities reported an increasing level of cartel-related violence. In July that year, Atlanta police had shot and killed a Gulf cartel operative arriving to pick up a $2 million kidnap ransom, while in summer 2007, police had found a citizen of the Dominican Republic bound, gagged, and chained to a wall in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn; he owed $300,000 to the Gulf cartel. In 2001, a haul of $41 million in Gulf cartel cash was uncovered in Atlanta, and another $2.3 million in Houston. In the United States, the battle for distribution is now essentially between Guzmán and the Gulf. After the swoop against the Gulf cartel in September 2008, 750 affiliates of the Sinaloa cartel were arrested in another famous roundup across the United States, Operation Xcellerator, in February 2009. The swoop started in California’s Imperial Valley, but many of those arrested were in Washington, D.C., and its environs. Some $460 million in cash was seized, along with twenty-four thousand pounds of cocaine and twelve hundred pounds of methamphetamine.
In its essence, Mexico’s cartel war is becoming a three-way battle among the army, Guzmán, and Los Zetas—but there is a recent addition to the list, La Familia. La Familia emerged during the 1990s as a syndicate entirely indigenous to Sinaloa’s coastal southern neighbor, the state of Michoacán. It was devoted to claiming drug trafficking from and across the state for itself against a subsidiary of Guzmán’s, the Milenio cartel, run by a family called Valencia. According to some reports, the rift was due to rivalry over a woman between a member of the Valencias and the man who founded La Familia, Nazario Moreno González, known as “el Más Loco”—the Craziest One. La Familia “came out” with a famous incident on September 6, 2006, when twenty masked men burst into a low-rent discotheque, the Sol y Sombra in Morelia, the state capital, and bowled five decapitated heads across the floor, accompanied by a message that is bizarre even by the wayward standards of narco communication: “La Familia does not kill for money. It does not kill for women. It does not kill the innocent. Only those who deserve to die. Know that this is divine justice.” El Más Loco prosletyzes from a book mixing quotations from the Scriptures with his own excruciating mantras, such as: “Don’t View Your Obstacles as Problems but Accept Them and Discover in Them the Opportunity to Improve Yourself.”
To fight off its Sinaloan neighbors, the emergent Familia had elected to be trained by Los Zetas. In 2007, however, La Familia decided to carve out an identity for itself alone, throwing off Los Zetas, who were getting closer to their goal of dominating La Familia. The response from Tamaulipas to the rebuff was a brazen act of terrorism against civilians: a bomb was thrown at crowds of families celebrating the Grito—the Cry of Independence—on the night of September 15, eve of Mexico’s Independence Day. It killed eight people and injured more than one hundred in the president’s home city of Morelia. La Familia sent a flurry of messages to local media disavowing the attack and hung narcomantas accusing Los Zetas of responsibility. After the swoops against first the Gulf cartel and then Guzmán, the U.S. authorities targeted operatives working for La Familia, with 305 arrested during mid-October 2009 by a sting known as Project Coronado. The concentration was around Dallas, where 77 were arrested for operating a distribution network feeding Illinois, Minnesota, and Mississippi.
As the year 2006 drew to a close, some two thousand people had been killed in violence between the cartels, mostly in Nuevo Laredo and Michoacán. Against this mayhem, on December 11, only ten days after he had been sworn in, the newly elected president of Mexico, Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa, mobilized forty thousand troops. Calderón, a Harvard-trained lawyer and devout conservative Catholic from Morelia, was the second president to be elected as a leader of the National Action Party (PAN), of which he had been a cofounder, succeeding Vicente Fox, a former executive of the Coca-Cola Company in Mexico. For the previous seventy-two years, Mexico had been ruled continuously by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had become more institutional than revolutionary by building and managing a byzantine system of government by patronage, thereby exercizing political power or influence in every pore of the social fabric to a degree unknown elsewhere in the West. Fox’s victory in 2000 was seen at the time to have broken with a stifling epoch, liberating Mexico into the Elysian fields of free-market capitalist meritocracy. His victory was an overwhelmingly urban one and especially resounding along the border. Fox won every border state and sixteen of the nineteen electoral districts adjacent to the United States.21
Commentators in the United States and Mexico consider it unfortunate that the narco violence coincides with the transition to a genuinely capitalist free market in Mexico; but my essential argument is that the violence is not, however, a counterforce against what the title of one learned account of this mutation in the country’s history calls “opening Mexico.”22 The violence occurs not despite but, in large part, because of these changes; it is at best an inevitable side effect of “opening Mexico,” and at worst integral to it. La plaza is a marketplace like any other, and narco cartels are not criminal pastiches of contemporary, multinational “late” capitalism—they are part of it and operate according to its values—or rather lack of values—and logic.
It would have been almost impossible for the narco cartels to operate without the help of the PRI; they mirrored and were part of the party’s pyramidal, monopolistic system. But a newly competitive economic environment and the defeat of the PRI obliged the cartels to look again at their own operations, tighten international alliances, and diversify their merchandise beyond the cocaine line that had been the main product of their boom years, the 1970s and ’80s, during which cohabitation with the PRI had been sustained. A new generation of cartel leaders, typified by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, expanded their catalog range and strengthened their production and supply of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, or crystal meth. And with cocaine consumption declining in the United States, they also returned to the best seller of yore, heroin, researching new permutations suitable to the latest taste—such as the craze for “cheese heroin” in Texas, mixing heroin with over-the-counter drugs to make it cheaper, stronger, and longer lasting. These are products of Mexico’s Fox-Calderón era.
President Calderón’s foursquare spokeswoman, Alejandra Sota Mirafuentes, meets me at Brasserie Lipp (the one in Mexico City, not Paris, and part of an international luxury hotel complex) to insist, over mineral water, “We cannot turn a blind eye to criminality. The power of the cartels has become a very real threat to the security of the Mexican state—the ability to buy off local and state authority, even federal government. For years,” she says of the PRI epoch, “the authorities just gave in.” But, “this is very important: Mexico has changed politically. If in the past, the government was greedy and wanted to take advantage of the cartels, that is no longer the case.” The initial intervention in Michoacán, she says, “opened the body, and once the body was opened, we could see that it had contracted severe cancer: Juárez, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, whole regions were controlled by the cartels.”
It seems odd that this bright young woman—let alone Calderón’s government—had not known that all along. President Calderón has, after all, needed to purge his own apparatus of corruption in an initiative he called Operation Clean House. His former acting police chief, Gerardo Garazy, was arrested for protecting the Beltrán Leyva brothers, and his “drug czar,” Noé Ramírez, for taking a $450,000 bribe from the Sinaloa cartel. Both are awaiting trial; both have denied wrongdoing. Operation Clean House, however, had failed to net another of Mexico’s apparently trustworthy drug czars, José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who was warmly embraced by Washington and had extradited Osiel Cárdenas Guillén. Vasconcelos was killed in a mysterious plane crash over Mexico City in November 2008, and six months later, in May 2009, a DEA report named Vasconcelos as being on the payroll of the Beltrán Leyva cartel.23
The thrust of the offensive, says Sota, is to challenge the cartels militarily while “aggressively” reforming the legal system and institutions, starting with the federal structure. The task, she says, “begins with the military, but by the end of the presidential term, we aim to have established an honest and well-structured federal police. We start with the military because we cannot count on the municipal and state police. In a number of places, the traffickers control the police.” So that is official, at least. As is this: “The military is going to stay in there for as long as it takes.” As long as what takes? “So long as it takes for the state to fulfill its basic obligations: public security and the collection of taxes, which are currently threatened by and even subverted and imitated by levies imposed by the cartels.” Strangely, and with estimable honesty, Sota adds, “The president is clear: the fight is not against drugs, it is against the violence and the ability of criminal organizations to subvert the state. The president knows that drugs will not disappear.”
That is the map at the outset, the template of the cartel war, to bear in mind as one explores the border. But there is no predicting how the lines on the map will blur or demarcate the narco topology. However, a journey along the map as it stands entails, loosely, three stages. First, the road from Tijuana to Ciudad Juárez, across the terrain of warfare among the Sinaloa, Tijuana, and Beltrán Leyva cartels. Then a meltdown in Juárez, as the cartel pyramids collapse into a murderous anarchy. Finally, from Ciudad Acuña and Nuevo Laredo eastward, the road leads into a land where there was, between 2005 and 2010, relatively less fighting but that is the most terrifying stretch along the border. Until early 2010, this terrain was subject to an iron reign consolidated by Los Zetas and the Gulf cartel. Only now they are no longer synonymous with each other: the “classical” and military wings are at internecine war.
With the election of Barack Obama, the map has also changed at the level of U.S. government. After decades of the United States seeing the narco-trafficking problem as essentially an all-Mexican one, there is now, for the first time, a sense of officially acknowledged coresponsibility over crucial areas of policy. During visits to Mexico City by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the president himself, the matter of arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico, previously taboo, has been addressed. There has been acknowledgment of the fundamental fact that the cause of the crisis is addiction to drugs in American society. In March 2009, President Obama announced a package with two themes: man the border defenses and attack the roots of addiction. He increased the budgets of all federal agencies along the border, with $700 million that year toward personnel and technology, and more to come. President Obama said he would upgrade intelligence gathering and improve cross-border interdiction, and also “redouble” efforts to diminish demand for drugs in the United States and stanch the flow of weapons from the United States to Mexico. “It’s really a two-way situation here,” said the president, speaking a language never before heard from the White House. “The drugs are coming north, we’re sending funds and guns south.”24
The reality on the ground is elastic, mercurial, and in places much worse than the map suggests. The map shows a war caused by fighting among cartels for smuggling routes and a consequent government crackdown, but it does not show another, monstrous, reason for the war: the Mexican side of the borderline has become accursed by addiction to hard drugs. This seems of little consequence to the United States, and is virtually never mentioned in Mexico, but it is the cause of most of the killing and the most wretched circumstances in the drug war. All warfare creates resultant “sideshow” horrors. And the consequential sideshow of America’s addiction to hard drugs supplied by Mexico and both countries’ war against the traffic is twofold: first, the ravages of hard drugs along the border, and subsequently, the feral war for control of this domestic plaza, which is just as savage as that for narcotic exports, if not more so. Fundamental to both Mexican government strategy and the thinking of the DEA is that fragmenting the cartels would weaken them, thereby damaging drug traffic and reducing violence. “We want it to be disorganized,” says Eileen Zeidler, spokeswoman for the DEA in San Diego, of the cartels’ fragmentation since President Calderón’s offensive. “If they’re not organized, they don’t function. We want it to fall apart.”25 Ms. Zeidler’s boss, the DEA’s chief of intelligence, Anthony Placido, went so far as to call the violence a “sign of success,” and to speak of “wounded, vulnerable” cartels.26 But fragmentation does not guarantee a weakening of narco traffic, it simply adds nuance to the market: the domestic plaza is fought over by the plethora of gangs that serve the big cartels when drugs cross the frontier, but they fight one another when dealing on home turf, bringing death and misery to the colonias. Like any other corporation, the cartels nowadays outsource much of their business to subcontractors who tender for a slice of the profits. Narco outsourcing even has a name: el derecho de piso—the right of tender, of passage.
Our journey begins where the desert sun sets in the Pacific at Amexica’s western edge, the frontier between Tijuana and San Diego. The latter is not really a border town—it is too big, too Californian. But one can already feel the frontier at the Twelfth Street and Imperial transit center, where early mornings there is a two-way rush hour through the mumbling homeless pushing their belongings in supermarket carts: of people arriving for work from Tijuana, and people leaving for work in Tijuana. The blue line trundles toward the railway yards and dockland base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, frigates and masts thick with radar, and painted murals illustrating the “History of Our Community” at Barrio Logan (a Hispanic settlement named after an Irish pioneer), featuring a Mesoamerican Indian blowing into a conch shell, fishermen hauling their catch, and dolphins at the SeaWorld theme park. Through factories and the lights and smoke of dawn, Rosebud Law Enforcement services and Tactical Assault Gear are right next door to Rosa’s Mexican diner just as they would be anywhere else in America. But anywhere else is not the suburb of Chula Vista, five miles north of Tijuana, nor San Isidro, end of the line—and of the United States. Thirty minutes south of downtown San Diego, on the platform teeming by seven thirty in the morning, the two-way rush hour is in full swing, as is a McDonald’s that is a border hub of its own: customs agents, girls laden with huge packs of diapers, Mexican businessmen who have fled to Chula Vista but return each day to work in Tijuana, and Mexican ladies on their way to clean American toilets are all eating breakfast. And there it is: the concrete barrier, the footbridge, and beyond it, Mexico. Aquí Empieza la Patria—Here Begins the Homeland—is Tijuana’s municipal motto, and a Mexican flag, defiantly and desperately giant, with its eagle clutching a snake on a cactus, which legend has it predicted the birth of the nation, flies in America’s face, at the border.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright © 2010 by Ed Vulliamy
All rights reserved
Introduction: America 3
1 La Plaza 19
2 Aqui Empieza la Patria (Here Begins the Homeland) 42
3 El Camino Del Diablo (The Devil's Highway) 65
Intermission: The Business End of A 12-Gauge---Barrett and Morgan's war 104
4 Urban Frankenstein 114
5 The Human Junkyard 156
6 The Wind of Knives 175
Intermission: The Road It Gives, and the Road it Tales Away 196
7 "Eat off the Floor" 213
8 Gatway to the Americas/Pax Mafiosa 236
9 Iron River/Tell Them who you are 266
Epilogue: El Sol Negro (The Black Sun) 321
Bibliographical Note 335
Tijuana's image north of the border was always that of a festive party town. And for the Americans who poured into TJ by the thousands every day, and by the tens of thousands every weekend, it was. YOU ARE IN THE MOST VISITED CITY IN THE WORLD claims the sign above Avenida Revolución, and whether statistically true or not, people thronged here to savor Mexican exotica, buy souvenirs, drink margaritas by the jug (at an age younger than the United States permits), get teeth fixed cheaply, invest in a spare pair of eyeglasses, and, latterly, buy Viagra and Prozac and other medications for a fraction of the price back home. Tijuana grew during the nineteenth century, after the loss of Alta California to the United States in 1848. The downtown area acquired its reputation for selling an ersatz Mexico to North Americans in 1915, when Tijuana decided to echo that year's great Panama-California Exposition in San Diego with a fair of its own called the Feria Típica Mexicana, to lure visitors across the border. Since then the city has specialized in sombreros, reproduction Aztec bric-a-brac, ponchos, and other trinkets that actually have nothing to do with the country's sixth-largest city of 1.5 million people. Every Mexican border city and town divides itself among indigenous norteños, sureños from the South, and chilangos from the capital. There is even a constituency that calls itself fronterizos, from the border itself. These are crucial points of identity. More than half the population of Tijuana comes from "traditional" southern Mexico, not to live according to some folklore kitsch but to work in maquiladoras or eke out some other living in desperately poor colonias on the city's outskirts. For the southerners, or those from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, Tijuana can be harsh, unwelcoming, dangerous, and violent. Attacks on Mixtecs, Mayas, and Zapotecs are routine. Until recently, when vast estates of uniform housing were built around the city, whole communities from South and Central America lived on the dompes, or landfills of domestic and industrial rubbish.
Tijuana's reputation for naughtiness grew during Prohibition, soon after the feria, when the city became a magnet for those seeking not only off-the-peg Mexico but also alcohol, gambling, and the go-go good-time vices that accompanied them. The existence of the biggest naval base on the Pacific at San Diego guaranteed off-duty customers in addition to civilian tourists. But the narco war has changed all this, so that now, says Enrico Rodríguez in his empty shop full of unbrowsed jewelry, trinkets, and Western wear, "I cross myself every time I make a sale and have not crossed myself for two days." No one wants a Polaroid picture taken of himself wearing a sombrero next to an old donkey painted black and white like a zebra, and the strippers pole-dance pretty much to one another. Except, perhaps, the odd scurvy vagabond from California, too stoned to care about any potential danger, and, of course, the local backsliders, equipped with a limited supply of greenbacks. The famous district around Avenidas Revolución and Constitución is now more about sleaze than aphrodisia. On its uppers, the Mermaid's Club and Hotel, with its Western-saloon-style swing doors, is forced to offer "Two Massages for the Price of One." The Adelita Bar (est. 1962), with the Hotel Coahuila situated conveniently next door, has seen better days, now hoping to attract guests with neon signs of girls wearing bandolero bullet belts and brandishing Kalashnikov machine guns. A passing gringo, I am ushered inside with desperate insistence and quickly introduced by a heavily tattooed doorman to comely Gabriela in a glittering, fluorescent turquoise bikini and train of plastic feathers like a peacock's. She asks if I would like to buy her a drink while the doorman, whose height reaches as far as Gabriela's articulate bust, runs down a list of offers-including stiff alcohol, sex, and a card game-all easily refused. The cavernous depths are not quite empty: a group of Mexican men share a bottle of tequila while their female company sip sodas, and a lone, pallid American with a goatee and skin that has not seen daylight for a good while watches the writhing pole dancer. But that's about it for the night, concedes the doorman. The narco "Juniors" themselves, once cocks of the walk, have disappeared too. Since war broke out, the modern narco-traficantes, out of prudence and self-preservation, keep a low profile, partying at the villa and entertaining ladies through home delivery rather than brazenly in public-as they did not long ago.
How well she remembers those days. How could she ever forget-when the Juniors, as they became known, were in their prime: flashing their wealth around Tijuana, dripping gold with a scantily dressed beauty hanging from each arm? Cruising in their SUVs, taking over nightclubs in which they would drink only champagne. Cristina Palacios Hodoyán, lighting ultrathin cigarettes with a gold lighter held in her ultrathin fingers, remembers them with a sorrow in her eyes that even her polished demeanor cannot hide. How could she forget the Juniors, when two of her three sons were among them? The eldest, Alejandro, was kidnapped twice-once in 1996 and again the following year, since when he has never been seen again. The youngest, Alfredo, became known as "el Lobo," the Wolf, and is serving 176 years in a Mexican jail, convicted of multiple murder and criminal association. "I had wanted them to become lawyers, or go into their father's business as civil engineers," their mother reflects. After finishing her cigarette, she picks at a smoked salmon sandwich, at a table in the Merlot restaurant, near the Tijuana Country Club, where the better class of people go. Mrs. Palacios turns sixty-nine the day after we have dinner, and says she plans a quiet meal with close friends, nothing extravagant.
Her boys had had the city at their feet. As heirs to the Palacios Hodoyán family, they enjoyed automatic membership in and access to the club campestre (country club) and the so-called Instituto Set, alumnae of the elite Tijuana Institute. There was an auspicious future in their father Ramírez's legitimate businesses if they wanted it. Alfredo was confirmed into the church by the bishop of Tijuana, a family friend who would become Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, assassinated by the very cartel Alejandro and Alfredo later joined. "Ocampo was very dear to us," recalls Cristina, "known and loved by Tijuana." Born in the United States, the boys could cross the border any time and set up in business there if they preferred, with their father's Rolodex of clients at their disposal. And the Hodoyán brothers were heading that way, until Ramón Arellano Félix arrived in town from Sinaloa.
"I remember Ramón," says Cristina with a shudder. "He always wore a mink coat, even on a hot day, and shorts-with a big golden cross against his bare chest. There was a place by a tree where children had always played with tricycles and bicycles, and later they might meet up there in the evening, chatting up the girls or boys. Alex was in college studying law, age about twenty-five, Alfredo was eighteen or nineteen. And Ramón Arellano Félix and the boys from Sinaloa used to come up to the tree, presenting themselves as interesting and exciting, flashing their money, and the girls wanted to be seen with them.
"So that the people who would start bringing drugs into my house-only I didn't know that at the time-were children I had known since kindergarten," she continues. "Ramón would take them to the clubs. He would walk in and commandeer a table, even if it was taken, just send the people away. He would buy champagne for his company all night, but if you talked to anyone else, you were considered a traitor. At any time, they could take someone out and kill them, and they did. Once you were in, you were in, and there was no way out. My sons had become part of it all, they were among people who would laugh while cutting someone's fingers off, or chop someone into pieces for fun. All this I learned later, when Alex had been captured and Alfredo was in prison."
On September 11, 1996, "Alejandro disappeared in Guadalajara. Until February, he was in custody, held by General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo of the Mexican army." During this time, in December, General Gutiérrez Rebollo was appointed to the top post as Mexico's drug czar, leading the government's effort against the cartels, not least because of his success in capturing Alejandro Hodoyán. Alejandro was "singing," telling the general all he knew about his AFO cartel.
It emerged when Alejandro talked to his family, says Cristina, that the confessions were coerced, and that the general had played a vile game with his quarry: "The soldiers," she recalls, "used electric shocks on his eyes and feet, and burned him with cigarettes and lighters to get him to talk. Gutiérrez Rebollo," she says, "had arrived later, after others had tortured him, so that Alex felt beholden to him and would tell him every thing." In late November, Gutiérrez Rebollo, once he had softened his prisoner, called in prosecutors from Mexico City, who videotaped a confession in which Alejandro, between gulps of water, recalls how his partners in the cartel would "laugh after a murder, and go off and have a lobster dinner." Killing, he told his captors, "is a party for them, it's a kick." Alejandro admitted that he had started running errands for the cartel, progressed to running drugs across the border, and then joined a unit of sicarios. After they had the information they needed, the Mexican Department of National Defense handed Alejandro over to the Americans, who were preparing an indictment against the AFO. "We also now know," Mrs. Palacios adds with a shudder, "that the Americans were aware this was how he was forced to talk.
"On February 10, 1997," she continues, "Alejandro was flown to San Diego, he told me, and put in custody by the FBI and DEA. At that point, both my sons were in San Diego, in different prisons, because Alfredo had been arrested too. But Alejandro was not arrested; it was worse than that: he was to become a protected witness. 'I know a lot of things,' he told me, 'and I need protection.' But he had no protection. They did not tell Alex that everything he had said in Mexico City had been leaked by the Ministry of Public Security to the Tijuana cartel, and that General Gutiérrez Rebollo was working all along for the Juárez cartel." Only two months into his new job at the apex of Mexico's supposed anticartel offensive, General Gutiérrez Rebollo was convicted of collaboration with Amado Carrillo Fuentes-the general even lived in a villa owned by the Lord of the Skies.
After ten days in DEA custody in San Diego, "Alfredo was asked to testify against his brother," says Cristina. Her younger son had been charged with two counts of murder and was about to be extradited to Mexico for trial. He was in an impossible position between the rock of family loyalty and the hard place of his own survival. At the same time, "Alejandro [escaped and] ran back to Tijuana. By then, he was a condemned man: by the AFO for having squealed to Gutiérrez Rebollo, and by the Juárez cartel for belonging to a rival." Alejandro hid at home. Two weeks later, Cristina was driving her son in the family's SUV. "We were in a parking lot, when a truck blocked our way. Men surrounded us, with guns, and told us to get out of the car. I said no. They didn't have masks or anything. Then they pulled Alex out and drove away. I never saw him again." She lights another ultrathin cigarette, draws in the smoke with a deep breath, and says, "It all made sense. They're all working for one cartel or another. When I went through a police album of intelligence officers, I found the face of the man I saw in the van, who kidnapped my Alejandro. But I still have Alfredo. He is in jail in Matamoros, and we are trying to get the sentence reduced."
All this is in the past, she insists. Cristina now works with parents or family of people kidnapped and probably killed by narco traffickers, trying to pressure the authorities to track their lost loved ones and do something that only very rarely happens: go after the kidnappers and killers. "The problem is, though," Cristina continues in a matter-of-fact way, "most of these people, once kidnapped, were dissolved in acid."
We are joined by Fernando Ocegueda Flores, whose son, also called Fernando, was taken from the family home, he says, on February 10, 2007. "The police were so uncooperative, even obstructive, that at first I thought they themselves had taken my son," he says. "Then the whisper from neighbors told me that it had been the Arellano Félix Organization. From the authorities, all this time, I have had nothing, zero, no investigation, not even a reply. I went crazy and decided to conduct my own investigation. For two years, I searched-I went to everyone I knew in the cartel and asked them point-blank to tell me. I went to their houses, I knocked on their doors in rage." "We were worried," says Cristina, "that he would not survive this line of investigation." "Someone did this, and I had to find out who," retorts Fernando. Finally, he says, "I went to a very dangerous place, and they put me in a car and I talked to this man. My request had gone high up the chain, and they told me my son had been killed and the body dissolved in acid."
On January 24, 2009, federal police raided a narcotraficantes' party at an upscale seaside resort on the coastal highway from Tijuana to Ensenada, and arrested one Santiago Meza López, universally known and wanted in Tijuana as "el Pozolero," the Stew Maker. Pozole is a popular stew made of pork, vegetables, and seasonings, but this is not what Meza was brewing. He confessed to having disposed of some three hundred corpses by dissolving them in vats of lye or hydrochloric acid, initially at the service of the AFO but defecting to the Sinaloa cartel, for which he was paid $600 a week. Meza's confession was straightforward: he would fill a vat with water and two bags of lye, don protective gloves and goggles, boil the pinkish brew, and dispose of the bodies delivered at his lair by truck, one by one.
Accordingly, Fernando Ocegueda came to know that the answer to his and hundreds of other distraught families' questions lay along the road southeastward from Tijuana to the satellite colonia of Florido, a place of shriveled orchards and ramshackle houses, home to the Silza propane gas terminal. Up a dirt track into the desert lies the hamlet of Ojo de Agua, the Eye of Water, above which are two small graveyards nestled into the hillside. El Pozolero's lair is surrounded by a blue tarpaulin and guarded by an encampment of bored Federales. It is a square of ground, about thirty by thirty yards, enclosed by walls of gray cinder blocks, open to the sky, with a little hut in the corner. For a tip of 400 pesos ($32), the Federales open the padlock and slide open the heavy white gate for a guided tour. Across the compound, earth is piled in mounds, and there are blue plastic barrels here and there. Two steel containers stand beside a cistern at the top of the slight incline on which the lair is built. "This is where he put them into the acid," says the police captain, in a plain-speaking, unadorned way, but with something between a grimace and a smile.
The unofficial tour is economically informative. "They would have been brought by truck and unloaded over here," says the captain, striding around, "then taken here, probably on wheelbarrows, put into the vats, and there you go, no more bodies!" But a potent smell rises through the afternoon heat: the inimitable, sickly sweet, putrid smell of death and decomposition, of human remains. "It's always stronger when it gets hot, around this time of day," observes the captain, as though by way of apology. So el Pozolero was not as thorough in executing his task as the public was led to believe, nor, clearly, were the police investigators whose duty it is, in theory, to collect any remaining DNA on the site, seal it, endeavor to identify the dead, and seek out their relatives. In fact, here we are, stomping around a crime scene that is abandoned but littered with evidence. "We haven't noticed any sign of the detectives for three months-no one, nothing, we're just told to stay here and ... well, watch for anyone who arrives," complains the bored captain. This was August 2009, eight months after the arrest and confession. The captain points into the cistern, from which an especially pungent stench ascends into the afternoon. "There's still plenty down there," he informs us, kindly but unnecessarily. And not only "down there"-we take a look inside one of the blue plastic barrels, and there is a lower jaw, with teeth still attached, that somehow escaped dissolution. At the bottom of one of the steel tanks, there is raw flesh and jellylike human tissue.
"Excerpted from AMEXICA: War Along the Borderline by Ed Vuillamy. Published in November 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ed Vuillamy. All rights reserved."
Excerpted from AMEXICA by Ed Vuillamy Copyright © 2010 by Ed Vuillamy. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 9, 2011
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